Family & Education

The Magic Fix for Family Life: Dinner Together

It's more than just a nice idea. University research shows that the family that eats together, stays together.
TIMEDecember 28, 2021

Imagine if there was one, simple thing parents could do for their children that would lead to the following results: better mental and physical health, higher self-esteem, less risky behavior, better academic performance, better communication skills, and a better relationship between parent and child.

The family meal: 20 years of research has shown that this tool does, indeed, exist.

Anne Fishel, professor of psychology at Harvard University and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, is an advocate for family meals.

“So many of the things that I try to do in family therapy actually get accomplished by regular dinners,” Fishel said.

Leonard Sax, a psychologist with 30 years of experience and the author of some very insightful parenting books, in his advice for parents says that the family meal should be a constant.

“Research shows having a family meal at home without distractions is important. Every day,” Sax said. “Not doing that indicates that time spent at home with parents is the least-important priority. It doesn’t matter. It can be overlooked and forgotten. By communicating that time at home as a family is our highest priority, you are sending the message that family matters.”

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Getting children to help with dinner duties gets them more invested in the family ritual. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Communication

Communication is the antidote to so many issues that may afflict our children. Healthy communication is most effective in a relaxed, convivial setting. There are other occasions in family life that meet this requirement, but none of them top the family meal.

At the dinner table, family members get to know one another better, and interestingly, they get to know themselves better. Through encountering the family as a group, as well as through the one-on-one interactions that occur, each person’s individuality blossoms before their own eyes.

Effective communication lies in allowing each person to express their own ideas and feelings without fear of condemnation. If the subject is truly inappropriate, parents can guide the conversation in the right direction, speaking the truth without criticizing the individual.

As G.K. Chesterton once said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

Parents want to find ways of communicating that suit what each person needs and to bring the family emotionally together during the meal. Periodic conversations between spouses are a great way of coming up with ideas of how to make some regular meals possible, to identify areas of difficulty or needed growth, to set goals, and even to come up with conversation ideas.

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For a change of routine, taking a child out for a meal can allow for more one-on-one time. (CandyBox Images/Shutterstock)

Creative Parents

Make regular occasions for the whole family to gather. This may be impossible every day. The good news is that research shows that even if only one parent is present, the whole family will reap the benefits of mealtime. This is important because often both parents have to work and may have conflicting schedules. Lunch, breakfast, or snacks can be highlighted as opportunities to eat together.

The point is that the parent who is on “duty” must try to set the tone of cheerfulness and togetherness for the meal. If it happens regularly that only one parent is at the meal, then the other can find ways to talk together about the “aha moments” that arise. Research has shown that the more frequently the family eats together, the greater the benefits are for the children.

However, what’s needed isn’t perfection, but effort. Start with one meal per week if necessary, and most likely the meal frequency will increase from there.

Informality

Family meals are informal, often lively, full of antics and spontaneity. Sometimes it’s good to be proactive in dinner conversation to steer away from too much bathroom humor or squabbling. The Family Dinner Project (TheFamilyDinnerProject.org) has lists of conversation starters and mealtime games. Stories about our family members are also a good idea—immigrating, falling in love, overcoming adversity, childhood memories, or funny real-life stories: All of these connect us to something bigger.

Another idea is a gratitude journal in which one person writes down something for which each family member is grateful. Current events, jokes, upcoming family outings, and the highs and lows of our day are all ways to get the conversation flowing. Children also learn much from watching their parents converse with each other about their day and about what’s happening in the community and world. Try to engage each child.

You can enlist the help of the older children in drawing out their young siblings. With teens, sometimes simple ideas are best—maybe antics about the family pet or another subject in which they’re interested.

Managing Conflict

Conflict is inevitable in a family of any size. Irene Freundorfer, a mother of 10, suggested going easy on teaching manners. Rather than speaking, she uses hand signals to remind the children to eat with their mouths closed, to keep their legs down, and to keep their elbows off the table. Avoid contentious topics. Use humor to change the mood. Play some music and light some candles once in a while. Compile a list of the family’s favorite foods to cut down on the complaining. Good food does help!

As for those little ones who keep getting up from the table, don’t worry. Even a short meal together is still a meal together. Just being together, eating, and talking together for a short time puts you on the path to a happier, healthier family.

Cooperation

Children helping with the family meals is another way of getting them to be invested in the meal ritual. One survey of 1,000 children showed that helping with dinner duties correlated with having good feelings. Have a child plan and make a meal with a parent one night. A weekly rotating schedule is one idea. Discuss this with the children. They often come up with good suggestions.

Special occasions help cement the family bond. The usual holidays are important—Christmas, birthdays—but also those other ones that arise—someone got their driver’s license after three tries, special anniversaries in the family, or weekly Sunday dinners. On these occasions, the special plates can be brought out and a little extra decoration can be added to the table. One of the kids can learn how to fold napkins or make a dessert or appetizer.

Another way to breathe life into the daily meal routine is to take the oldest child or children out for a meal. This changes the dynamic and can allow for deeper communication. We took our oldest child to a restaurant that serves pizza while diners play board games. Perfect for teens who view questions with suspicion! Or you could have your own game night at home, playing cards while eating. A high tea to show the grandmas how much they’re appreciated allows the children to plan, execute, and participate in a special meal.

Having guests over for dinner occasionally can help the children to be better behaved and to interact in new ways. This is good for any age and may be especially good for teens as they pull away a bit and are in need of other, external good influences.

In the words of Irene Freundorfer:

“Supper time is an excellent occasion for everyone to review their day. Try to eat together as often as possible. Try not to eat in the car, on the run, or separately. Coming together around one table is very important. Share, talk, laugh, joke, enjoy. Your children are home for only a short time in your life. Build the memories. Plug into the power of family meals. Whether you talk about your work, the news, family lore, plans for vacations … you are helping your kids develop criteria, values, identity, sense of belonging, and family intimacy.

“Too often the fast pace of today’s life erodes this special family ritual. Try to take care of it more. Keep extra-curriculars to a minimum. Safeguard mealtimes. They are sacred family occasions. Take the phone off the hook while you are eating. Get rid of distractions, [such as] newspapers, iPods, toys, and TV screens. Make the event a moment of interaction, presence, and relationship.

“Set a nice table. Use proper serving dishes. Linger over the meal as the kids get older and have more to say. Learn to relax, slow down, and savor the moment. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t allow the rush of life to encroach upon this valuable family time. You have the power to really make a difference in your family’s well-being by this simple daily ritual. Don’t be quick to let it slip through your fingers. Grab it while you can. You will be so much stronger for it.”

This article was originally published on MercatorNet.

Ida Gazzola
Ida Gazzola is the mother of six girls and one boy, and lives in British Columbia, Canada. Before embarking on the adventure of parenting, she studied and worked in the financial industry. “Team Baby: Creating a Happy and Rested Family,” which she co-authored with Julia Dee, offers parents of new babies practical ways to develop a tranquil flow of life within the family.